William Gaultiere, Ph.D.Director of New Hope & Clinical Psychologist
I believe that the primary purpose of Christian parenting is
discipleship, inviting my children into my walk with Jesus,
investing in them the life of God that I've come to experience
so that they grow into being "new creatures" in Christ (2 Corinthians
5:17). This is how it worked for Timothy. The Apostle Paul affirmed
him and his family saying that his faith "first lived"
in his grandmother and then his mother (2 Timothy 1:5, NIV, emphasis
Breath God's L.I.F.E. into Your Child
Before Jesus ascended into heaven he said to his disciples, "Receive
the Holy Spirit," and he breathed on them (John 20:22). In Jesus
the Living God had walked and talked with Peter, James, John,
and the other disciples and Christ-followers, but now God's very
life entered their souls and their bodies became temples for the
Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). If there's one thing that our
kids need from us, it's the life of God.
Do you know what the life of God is? I think maybe not. I know
I didn't for many years, but in recent years I'm starting to understand.
I'm not just talking about becoming a Christian. That's just
the beginning. I'm talking about you and I and our kids having
our souls animated by God's Spirit such that we live in the "abundant
life" that Jesus came to bring us (John 10:10), a life that enjoys
God moment by moment, a life of faith that overcomes the stresses
and dark forces in this world, a life of vitality and purpose
that impacts our world with God's good news. People ripped off
the roofs of houses to get this life from Jesus! (Mark 2:1-12)
Parents fought their way through crowds, with their children in
tow, just to have their kids touched by the Living God! (Matthew
19:1-2, 13-15). It was that important to them. And it is to
me. In fact, there is nothing more important to me than
being alive with God's life and imparting this to others, especially
my children. "For it is in him that we live and move and have
our being" (Acts 17:28, NIV).
I think there are four aspects to this living faith that we want
to impart to our children (and to experience for ourselves or
else how can we give it to them?). They represent four ways that
we need God's "L.I.F.E." in our souls, four developmental building
blocks for the Christian life: Love, Identity, Forgiveness,
and Enthusiasm. Imagine these four spiritual developmental
needs as building blocks that stack on top of each other in a
certain order, starting with love as the foundation.
Imprint a Godly Identity for Your Child
Let's look at the second of these four building blocks of child
development: Identity. As a parent you probably have more power
than you realize to develop a godly and glorious (yes, glorious!
2 Corinthians 3:18 in the NIV says that we're to "reflect the
Lord's glory. with ever increasing glory") identity in your child.
Certainly, it often doesn't feel that we can influence our kids
like we want! They have minds of their own. But I've found it
to be true that most children (and even many adults) are spiritually
moldable, but only at critical moments of trust.
It's like the way in which a gosling becomes "imprinted." Right
after it hatches, and only at that moment, the baby goose attaches
itself to the first thing it sees moving nearby. Of course, this
is supposed to be the Mother Goose, but if she is removed then
the gosling will settle for any mother substitute. That could
be a mother duck, in which case he'd grow up confused! Or it
could be a fox and in that case he'd be eaten! Or, researchers
have found that goslings imprint readily on blue football bladders
being dragged by a string! They follow the blue bladder around
wherever it goes!
Time is critical in the imprinting process. The gosling imprints
in the few seconds right after it hatches. If the opportunity
is lost then it cannot be regained. It's similar for children,
but fortunately, we have years to work with, not seconds. But,
as any parent with older children knows, the time is short and
the older they get they harder it is to make a godly imprint.
Infants and toddlers will imprint on their mother's relational
style and emotional state because their attachment (loving connection)
needs are so strong. And pre-school and school aged children
will imprint their parent's affirmations and values to form their
identity and conscience. As the Proverb says, "Train a child
in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from
it" (Proverbs 22:6, NIV). Some Bible teachers say that this verse
is better interpreted to say, "Train up a child according to
who he is and when he is old he will not turn from it." In
other words, discover the God-given personality and gifts of your
child and bring that out!
Affirm Your Child's Personality and Gifts
A few months ago I had an imprinting opportunity when my seven-year
old daughter Briana asked me a question I'll never forget. My
family was going around the dinner table sharing our "peaks and
pits" of the day and I had just responded to what Briana's sister
Jenny shared by affirming her as having "a heart of compassion."
Jenny is such an appreciative girl so she lapped up my words like
a puppy with a bowl of milk. It was at that point that Briana,
looked at me with her own puppy dog eyes and panted with anticipation,
"Daddy, what do I have a heart of?"
I turned to look at her precious face and eager heart. She had
caught me unprepared so I hesitated for a moment; thinking to
myself, What I say right now is crucial. It may be the most
important question she ever asks me! Lord, what is Briana's heart
made of? "Little girls are made of sugar and spice and everything
nice," wouldn't have met Briana's need! She wanted me to recognize
her beautiful uniqueness like I had her sister's. Thank God that
all of a sudden He gave me the words, "Briana, you have the heart
of a leader. Your name means `Strong in God's grace' and that's
what you are. I love to see how you lead people in good ways."
Briana wagged her tail and yelped with excitement, "Mommy! Mommy!
I have the heart of a leader!" I was so glad that my little girl
brought the question of her heart to me and that God spoke through
me to give her the affirmation that she needed for her identity.
I know that as she grows up there are a lot of other places she
could bring that question, like to a fickle friend, a boy with
lustful desires, or alcohol at a party. I believe that my affirmation
will help her to stand a little taller and smile a little bigger
and be better able to pick herself back up when she gets a bad
grade, feels rejected by a friend, or I lose my temper at her.
And there was also a quiet hound dog at the table who could have
been left out so I affirmed him also by saying, "And David, you're
an engineer and a teacher. I love the way you design and build
things and then explain how it works to others." Blessing my
children with affirming words is not something that has come natural
for me. I've worked on it though because I believe it is so crucial.
Our Heavenly Father in the Bible models it for us. For instance,
he says that children are a "heritage" and a "reward" (Psalm 127:3,
NIV), a blessing (Psalm 127:5) and a "crown" (Proverbs 17:6).
And in a culture in which children were thought of as possessions
and interruptions Jesus made time for them and repeatedly held
them in highest esteem, standing them in front of the crowds to
praise them and point out that anyone who wants to enter God's
kingdom must become like a child (Matthew 18:1-6; 19:13-15).
A Model for Family Devotions
One of the most helpful things that my wife Kristi and I have
done to encourage our children's spiritual development and strengthen
their emerging Christian identities was to launch family devotions
at dinner. We had tried and failed at this a few times and I
had become quite frustrated, feeling like I was spiritually encouraging
my clients, the lay counselors I train, and people who came to
my seminars at church, but not getting through to my own kids!
We were both sad about this because God's Word is so important
to us and we want it to be important in our family life too.
So we tried again and our effort was again met with resistance
in the form of protests, complaining, and whining. But this time
we persisted and our kids grew to appreciate this time and only
occasionally do they react negatively to it now. I wish I could
show you the three-ring binder notebook with Bible verses that
we use. It would demonstrate to you their affection and identification
with our family devotions. Each one of them has taken turns personalizing
the white cover and pages with messages like, "Bible + Jesus =
God," "Hello!" and "Gaultiere's Dinner Devotional." And there
are precious pictures of Jesus, a heart, a house, a boy, and a
girl reading a Bible in a lap and saying, "Wow!" There's even
some good theology represented in a picture of a triangle, labeled
"God," and each point of the triangle lists a member of the Trinity:
Father, Jesus, Spirit. Our kids have made these devotions a part
of their family identity.
Along with the united determination that Kristi and I had, I
think what helped us develop our family devotions was that we
used a very simple system that fit our family values. We scraped
the idea of the typical family devotions book that has stories
and crafts and pictures. Instead, I picked out 365 Bible verses
according to 31 themes (one theme for each day of the month so
that there were 12 verses for each theme). We called our first
family devotional "Essential Christian Beliefs and Values." It's
themes include God's love and holiness, the Trinity, Jesus as
the way to relationship with God, confessing our sins, appreciating
our incredible worth as God's children, and obeying each of the
Ten Commandments. (Our second and current family devotional is
on "The Promises of God" and the next one will be on "Why the
Christian Message is True.") Since the verses were numbered 1
to 31 and not tied to a specific date we didn't get behind or
feel guilty if we missed a day; we knew we'd catch that verse
the next month and it wouldn't matter if it took us longer than
a year to get through it (It did!). And we made our devotions
very flexible so that if the kids were antsy when we were discussing
the importance of telling the truth, for example, then we could
read the verse, explain it, and pray in five minutes or less,
but if they were interested because we were discussing what the
Bible teaches about sex, to take another example, then we'd let
the discussion go on, relating the verse to real situations that
were occurring in their lives and answering their questions.
As much as possible we got our kids to do the talking which included
having David teach his younger sisters. (If you would like us
to e-mail you a free copy of the first devotional we created contact
us through our website, ChristianSoulCare.com.)
Encourage Your Child to Do Personal Bible Study
I think I was about ten years old when I got my first Bible.
For years I had watched my mother read the Bible and underline
verses that were especially important to her. She wrote verses
down and put them up on our refrigerator. It was like she was
feeding off of it everyday. I now know that she was!
It's just like Jesus said, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, "Man does
not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from
the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4, NIV). For over 30 years now I've
been feeding my own soul almost daily on God's Word. I've learned
that not only is the Bible soul food, but it's a window and a
mirror. It's a window for me to see what God is like, the glorious
beauty of His holiness and the wonder of His mercy. And it's
a mirror for me to see my need for God's grace and wisdom and
to appreciate the astounding truth that He's transforming me to
be glorious like Him.
Of course, pressuring our kids to read the Bible is not helpful.
I've learned that when we do this they either swallow our expectation
whole and compliantly read the Bible without digesting it or they
gag over being force-fed and rebel. From birth we've read our
kids Bible stories when they were receptive. Then as each one
has learned to read we've provided them with beginner's Bibles.
And, as we just discussed, once they were all school-aged we started
doing regular family devotions, which we did make a nonnegotiable,
but we have tried to do it in a way that accommodates their interest
Kristi and I were so pleased last summer when Jenny was invited
by some of her friends to join a Bible study! She wanted to do
this and brought her own Bible to the group. She did her lessons
each week, asking Kristi for help when she needed it. Then this
year she wanted Kristi to lead the group and to hold it in our
home so that she could invite some of her friends in the neighborhood
who don't go to church. It's exciting to see her developing her
own relationship with God's Word and it gives us hope that she'll
continue this throughout her life.
Rely on the Body of Christ
Each of these ideas for guiding your child into an enthusiastic
faith requires depending on the Body of Christ in some way. You
just can't raise a godly child without Christian community. The
first time we sent our oldest child, David, to Christian camp
it was difficult to let go. He was ten at the time and we worried,
Would he be lonely or get homesick? Might there be some bad
influences? But he came back excited. He wanted a Bible
of his own and became interested in reading it with me at night.
He got a fish sticker and put it on his bedroom window. And he
joined a small group Bible Study at our church with other boys
his age. Having people other than mom and dad encourage Christian
living and being around other kids who are enthusiastic Christians
is so powerful in encouraging children to develop their own dynamic
faith in Jesus.
Since I read the book "Spiritual Milestones" Kristi and I have
started planning out and celebrating with family and friends our
children's spiritual passages. This is an exciting and impactful
way to encourage the development of your child's faith. The idea
is to invite your child to focus on his or her next faith step
and then for you and your child to structure a fun and meaningful
celebration around that event. You can do this with first communion,
catechism class, a preparing for adolescence weekend, a commitment
to sexual purity ceremony, or a Christian rite of passage ceremony
(like a Jewish Bar-mitzvah).
For instance, when our daughter Jenny wanted to be baptized at
age 10 she and I had studied what the Bible teaches about being
baptized and she took a class at church on it so she knew what
she was doing. She said that she wanted to be baptized to be
a witness for Jesus, to show her family and friends (including
her nonchristian friends from public school) that she believed
in Jesus. So we planned a special service for her. She invited
56 people to our house and amazingly almost everyone came! The
invitation that she sent out had her testimony on it and it was
so powerful that her eight-year old cousin prayed to become a
Christian after reading it! Then at the actual baptism service
Kristi and I gathered everyone and gave them a chance to affirm
Jenny's faith. The pastor explained the meaning of baptism, people
laid hands on her and prayed for her, she said why she wanted
to be baptized, and her pastor and I baptized her in our backyard
Jacuzzi with these words, "Jenny, since God loves you and you
want to follow Jesus we baptize you in the name of the Father,
the Son, and the Holy Spirit." Lastly, we all ate together.
Afterward, I asked Jenny what it felt like to be baptized. She
said, "Daddy, it was so special. It was like laying back into
soft, calming kitten fur!"
Children Internalizing and Passing on the L.I.F.E. of God
The main point I'm emphasizing here is that Christian parenting
is incarnational. Think of this as a succession of three
triangles, each triangle represent a loving relationship between
three entities, as indicated below. The "Trinity Triangle" depicts
God in loving community with His three distinct identities. The
"Parenting Triangle" shows a parent, teaming up with God to care
for his or her child and to invite that child into the parent's
relationship with God. Finally, the "Child's Soul Triangle" views
three critical psychological constructs that a child internalizes
from God and the parent and which can be positive or negative
depending mostly on how well the Parenting Triangle transmits
the Trinity Triangle to the child.
The bottom left corner of each of the three triangles illustrates
the incarnational aspect of Christian parenting. God entered
human flesh in Jesus, showing us the Father's love and giving
us His Holy Spirit to overflow our souls. Then the parent, as
Christ's Ambassador, is put in position by God to reveal and mediate
God's care. Finally, the child internalizes an understanding
of the parent ("Internalized Parent") and God (the "God-image,"
along with the "conscience") and develops a view of self that's
in relationship to the parent, God, and others.
So as parents we want to try to pass on the love, identity, forgiveness,
and enthusiasm of God to our children so that they internalize
the life of God for themselves and then share it with others.
For instance, if they experience mom and dad as affirming their
worth (internalized parent) and this is done in Jesus' name (God-image)
then the odds are high that they will see themselves as significant
(self-image) - they'll carry God's glorious image into their lives,
blessing other people and honoring their Lord Jesus Christ.
William Gaultiere, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of the New
Hope Crisis Counseling Center at the Crystal Cathedral and a Clinical
Psychologist and Spiritual Director with ChristianSoulCare.com.
On his website you can sign up for a free inspirational devotional